Skip on over to the Firenze Santa Maria Novella Station, jump on a "freccia" high speed train and in just about 30 minutes, you'll find yourself in Bologna for a lovely day trip. The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna is a delightful surprise to visitors like ourselves, who often put the city on the back burner of places to go to in Italy.
Originally founded around 1000 BC by the Etruscans, the city flourished as a center of trade and industry that has spanned numerous civilizations. Today, Bologna has an air of a elegance and grandeur thanks to gorgeous architecture that dates back to its Medieval heyday.
With just about 8 hours to spend in Bologna, we started out by visiting the city's main square, Piazza Maggiore, which was built in the 15th century and flanked by great structures such as the Basilica of San Petronio (dedicated to Bologna's patron saint). The basilica is today the world's 15th largest church, and the largest one made entirely out of brick. At one point in it's construction, plans were modified to make the basilica even bigger than St. Peter's in Rome, but the idea was quickly stamped out by the sitting pope, citing jealousy (ok, maybe not entirely historically accurate, but still).
Just a few steps away from the piazza is the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio, a historic classroom for anatomy lessons at the University of Bologna (the first and oldest university in the world). The hallways at the university - as well as it's library - are quite impressive and regal, fit for the university's famed alumni such as Petrarch, Dante, Marconi, and many, many more. After gawking at beautiful architecture and rare books, lunch time calls.
And Bologna isn't known as "the fat one" for no reason. It's not surprise that foodie options abound in the city which exports its mortadella, salamis, ragù (what else? bolognese sauce), parmesan cheese, tortellinis and Sangiovese wine all over the world. We explore the streets of the Quadrilatero quarter to find a tiny enoteca and finish off lunch with a "torta di riso," a local creamy cake made with rice and liqueur (recipe here). We then explore the area's gorgeous winding streets, which are filled with local grocers, gastronomias serving handmade pastas and plates of cold cuts, as well as bakeries, centuries-old trattorias, and adorable boutiques.
Still feeling guilty about the inhumane amounts of calories we consumed over lunch, we opt to burn some calories by climbing one of the many towers built by leading Bolognese families in the Medieval times to show off their wealth. Bologna's most famous - the Asinelli tower - is 97 meters high, with tiny little wooden steps leading you to the top, where - after breaking out into a little bit of a sweat - you can gawk at the beauty of the city.
Lightly strolling back towards the main station on via della in the late afternoon, we opt for Via Della Indipendenza and its gorgeous arcades, which is energized by hoards of young people from all over Italy studying at the universities, as well as street artists (good ones, for a change), and great shops to peek into.
A quick taste of Bologna wasn't enough. We were back in Florence for dinner, but will definitely go back and try to spend more time in this charming city, only 30 minutes from Florence, but a world away from a cultural standpoint.